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The Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship
A not-so-funny thing happened on the way to this years 30th anniversary of Earth Day. A group of Religious Right leaders, scientists, and academics, basking in the dual spotlights of Earth Day and Holy Week, launched the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship (ICES), an organization to graft dominion theology onto right-wing environmentalism.
For years, Religious Right groups have anchored their views on environmental issues in Genesis 1:28God granted dominion over every living thing that moves on earth. Because nature is wild, explains Nina George Hacker in Concerned Women for Americas Family Voice, we [humans] were given the authority to subdue it for lifes necessities.
What the Christian Right and free-market think tanks have done for the debate on social and political issues, the Washington, DC-based Interfaith Council hopes to do for environmental issues; harness scripture in the service of free-market environmentalism.
In October 1999, 25 economists, environmental scientists, and policy experts convened in West Cornwall, Connecticut, and hammered out the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship. The Cornwall Declaration, the founding document of ICES, is the first major pronouncement on environmental issues by a coalition of conservative religious groups. The Declaration prioritizes the needs of humans over nature, advocates the unleashing of free-market forces to resolve environmental problems, and denounces the environmental movement for embracing faulty science and a gloom-and-doom approach.
Father Robert A. Sirico, CSP, founder and president of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, is the intellectual author of this new collaboration. According to Michael Bankey, environmental policy analyst and editor of Actons Environmental Stewardship Review, For many years Father Sirico has been worried about [misguided] theological trends in the environmental movement.
Bankey added that the Institute played a large part from the very beginning of the project and lit the fire that helped pull the project together.
The Cornwall Declaration
The conservative National Catholic Register summarized the Declarations three areas of common misunderstanding: Many people mistakenly view humans as principally consumers and polluters rather than producers and stewards.... The tendency among some to oppose economic progress in the name of environmental stewardship is often sadly self-defeating.
Many people believe that nature knows best, or that the earthuntouched by human hands is the ideal.... Denying the possibility of beneficial human management of the earth, removes all rationale for environmental stewardship.
Greatly exaggerated or unfounded environmental concerns, among them global warming, overpopulation, and rampant species loss.
The Declaration warns that social collectivism and government intervention cannot ameliorate environmental problems: The relationship between stewardship and private property [needs to be] fully appreciated, allowing peoples natural incentive to care for their own property to reduce the need for collective ownership and control of resources and enterprises, and in which collective action, when deemed necessary, takes place at the most local level possible.
Publication of ICESs Cornwall Declaration comes on the heels of George W. Bushs first environmental initiative unveiled in early April. Bush aims to speed the cleanup of brownfields (abandoned or under-used contaminated industrial sites) by restricting cumbersome environmental regulations. Brownfields edged into the nations consciousness with the release of the Julia Roberts film Erin Brockovich. Based on a true story, Brock- ovich, a file clerk, discovers a cover-up involving the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which had recklessly dumped highly toxic chemicals that seeped into the groundwater in Hinkley, California, causing many of the towns residents devastating illnesses.
Jonathan H. Adler, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and long-time critic of the environmental movement, appreciates Bushs anti-regulatory thrust. Adler applauds Bush for a common sense plan that will accelerate the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields around the country by increasing regulatory flexibility and easing up on draconian liability standards that discourage developers from investing in brownfields. This initiative puts Bush on the right track, says Adler, to capture the moral high ground in the environmental debate.
Bushs proposal was roundly criticized by the Sierra Club in a press release (George W. Bush: The Polluters Governor), claiming that his plan would weaken the Federal Superfund law for cleaning up abandoned toxic waste sites. According to Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director, Bushs promises on the environment are as credible as [TVs infamous Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire groom] Rick Rock- well saying til death do us part. (The Sierra Club has extensively documented Bushs abysmal environmental record at www. sierraclub.org.)
In a recent interview, Acton Institutes Bankey denied a Religious News Service report that ICES would be initiating environmental legislation, saying that the group would not be engaged in legislative battles. When asked about the organizations budget, Bankey said that while he wasnt clear about the details, each of the participating groups would contribute financially to different aspects of the organizations program.
The Declarations signers are a veritable Whos Who of the Religious Right. Among them: Focus on the Family president James Dobson; Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright; Prison Fellowship Ministries head Charles Colson; the Rev. Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association; Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition; and Sirico.
The Interfaith Council distinguishes itself from run-of-the-mill conservative anti-environment collaborations by the inclusion of these high-profile leaders of the Religious Right. The advisory committee also taps a cross-section of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish leaders aligned with conservative politics, including highly controversial figures like Dr. D. James Kennedy of the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries. Dr. Kennedy, a leader in the anti-gay movement and an outspoken denier of separation of church and state, says, if ever an issue needed sound Biblical Doctrine brought to bear upon it, its the environment, and the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship, through its Cornwall Declaration accomplishes this. Two other advisory committee members of note are Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion, a persistent critic of mainline Protestant denominations, and Dr. Marvin Olasky, professor of journalism and history at the University of Texas, Austin and George W. Bushs compassionate conservatism guru.
ICES also hammers away at environmentalists for their faulty science and economics, strident street theater, and demands for immediate, drastic action on problems that are often hypothetical or overstated, according to the Religious News Service. Rabbi Lapin, a declaration signer, summed it up by saying, when we embrace the strident messages of radical environmentalism, we are neither just, nor merciful, nor good stewards of the earth, and we condemn the worlds poorest people to continued misery and disease. This is not what God intended, and not what our traditions have taught.
ICESs web site, (www.stewards.net/About.html) maintains that the organization is building a network of religious, academic, and community leaders who can offer sound theological, scientific, and economic perspectives on these issues. Soon, they will provide a credible alternative to liberal environmental advocacy for people in congregations, schools, government, and the religious and secular media.
The Acton Institute
In 1990, Father Sirico founded The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Named for historian and conservative social philosopher Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, otherwise known as Lord Acton, the Institutes mission is to promote a free and virtuous society, characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.
Father Sirico has a colorful background. In the 1970s, according to Jerry Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Project Tocsin, Sirico was a roll-em-on-the-floor Pentecostal boy preacher, who was packing 1500 people into a Seattle theater every week, until, under puzzling circumstances, he was forced to leave town. He moved to Los Angeles where he became a minister in the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Church- es, and later served as executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Community Center.
Sirico later called this his soft Marxist period. After a political transformation to libertarianism, he returned to the Catholic Church with a mission. I heard homilies preached that inevitably insulted business people, he says, and he was determined to turn that around.
In the mid-1990s, the Acton Institute, then little known outside of conservative circles, played a significant role during the welfare reform debate. At its 1995 Welfare to Work conference in Washington, DC, the Institute founded the National Welfare Reform Initiative. Father Sirico became one of only a few religious leaders to support welfare reform. In Congressional testimony he argued for greater restrictions on welfare for recipients and for the wholesale moving of social welfare programs into the hands of faith-based organizations.
According to The Right Guide, published by the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Economics America, Inc., in 1997, 94 percent of the Acton Institutes $1.8 million budget came from contributions and grants awarded by foundations, businesses, and individuals. Grants from right-wing foundations included $100,000 from the Scaife Family Foundation, $50,000 from the Richard and Helen deVos Foundation, $50,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation, and $40,000 from the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation.
Father Sirico converts the Churchs advocacy on behalf of the poor, strongly promoted by John Paul II in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, into a paean for the free-market. The Pope asks, can it...be said that, after the fall of communism, capitalism is the victorious social system...? While recognizing the failure of the Marxist solution and praising capitalism, the Pope acknowledges, the realities of marginal- ization and exploitation remain in the world, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church strongly raises her voice.
Father Siricos open disagreements with many of the social teachings of the Church make the news of his recent work on behalf of the Vatican even more chilling. According to the conservative National Catholic Register, Sirico just completed his most prestigious assignment, the sift[ing] out [of] the most important passages from the social teachings of the popes from Leo XIII to John Paul II. The finished work, The Social Agenda: A Collection of Magisterial Texts, a 225-page book containing nearly 370 quotations from some 75 Church documents, was released at the Vatican in late April.
By selecting as the central theme in the papal social encyclicals the principle of subsidiarity wherever possible responsibilities should be handled at a lower organizational level (read less government regulation)and emphasizing the right to private property, Sirico is clearly aligning the Churchs teachings with his own free-market philosophy.
Professor Anthony Basile, in a lengthy critique of the Acton Institutes work in the September 1998 issue of Culture Wars, tears into Sirico for supporting a view that portray[s] poverty as the fault of the poor individual, and not due to social injustices, a fundamental departure from Catholicism.
Basile sees the Institute as undermining the Churchs teachings by developing a counter-theology which dismisses Church doctrine in the name of discussing it. The creation of the Institutes Center for Economic Personalism allows Sirico a platform for melding ideology and practice and indoc- trinat[ing] all [its] seminarians and theology students along these ideological lines.
Having completed this formidable task, Father Sirico says he plans more ventures with the Vatican including projects on globalization, family issues, and...[the] tax culture, issues that he writes about regularly in columns for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes magazine.
In recent weeks, Father Sirico was a major player behind the launching of the Interfaith Council for Environmental Stewardship. Father Sirico has long argued, environmental ideology is increasingly being used, not to preserve natures beauty, but to restrict human enterprise that is essential to a more humane existence for people. The Interfaith Council allows Father Sirico to add free-market environmentalism to his ideological quiver.
Although it is too early to tell if ICES will have a significant impact on this years elections, if Bush wins in November, this new coalition will likely lead many faith-based organizations lining up for government dollars to challenge the progressive environmental movement. Z
Bill Berkowitz edits CultureWatch, a monthly publication tracking the Religious Right and related conservative movements, published by Oaklands DataCenter.